This article contains spoilers for both Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation, and Alex Garland’s film of the same name.
A little under an hour and 20 minutes into Annihilation, a new feature film directed by Alex Garland and loosely adapted from the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name, a character vocalises a peculiar worry about her persistency. Her name is Doctor Ventress, and she, like the four women accompanying her on a mission into “the shimmer” – a strange, potentially alien haze spreading slowly over the surface of our planet – has begun to suspect that she is altering in ways she can no longer control. “We are disintegrating,” she spits. Her concern: if she doesn’t reach the quintet’s shared goal, a lighthouse at the epicentre of the shimmer, that “the person that started this journey won’t be the person that ends it.”
Maybe our first impulse is to suggest that such concerns about selfhood should be restricted to worlds wracked by shimmers.
Perhaps it seems like this is a worry specific to the world of Annihilation; one removed from the logic that guides our own lives. After all, in both Annihilations, VanderMeer’s and Garland’s, it is not necessarily termination the characters face and fret over, but surreal alterations. In the book, VanderMeer’s unnamed heroine is changed by the shimmer to become something more than those around her; in the film, Garland’s named heroine Lena is changed to become precisely the same as those around her. She is driven through a prism, mixed with the world around her, and focused to a fine point. She does not die, but at the same time, she does not continue living in the way we generally tend to use that word.
So yes, maybe our first impulse is to suggest that such concerns about selfhood should be restricted to worlds wracked by shimmers. But that impulse is wrong. On the subject of our persistency – on the nature of what makes us ourselves, and, moreover, keeps us that way – philosophers are divided. They have been for hundreds of years.
Our bodies are always in flux. We are changing constantly, in the most literal way possible. New cells replace old ones, and although our bodies keep their shape – almost – the stuff that makes us dies. Come every seven years, there is not one cell in your body that hasn’t been replaced. You are reborn, and that often; forever a thing that is changed and still changing.
So maybe then the natural response is to turn to memory, and suggest that is what anchors personhood to a random collection of constantly swapped out cells. “I can remember who I used to be yesterday; I am that person today; thus, I have not changed.” But this is a preconception that can be tested too.
What happens then to the old woman going through Alzheimer’s? Is there a point she no longer resembles herself? And does that mean when we lose our memories – when, as in the case of both Annihilations, we can no longer track what has gotten us to a particular place; when we lose all sense of time – that we are leaving behind ourselves?
There is one change that hangs heavy over VanderMeer’s Annihilation, and indeed most of his writing to date – that great, seemingly terminal ecological change we are all living under; a change threatening to undo the future of our species. VanderMeer is the first truly great writer of the Anthropocene, and precisely because he is one of the few writers willing to engage with it properly.
In his Annihilation, the shimmer is so unpredictable – so powerful, and yet so without what we would usually call agency – that it makes a mockery of all the ways we might hope to contain it. It is as impervious to our barriers as the rising ocean soon will be to sea walls; as unforgiving as famine.
And yet VanderMeer understands the true nature of our impending ecological collapse. Crucially, his shimmer, though plainly disruptive for humankind, is not a wave of desert, or of death. Quite the contrary. It is vibrantly, astonishingly full of life; a burst of biomatter, as haphazardly spread as a Pollock. Even as everything else changes, often to the point of being unrecognisable, some kind of life persists.
VanderMeer is the first truly great writer of the Anthropocene.
In that way his Annihilation calls to mind the oddly hopeful, ugly threat hidden in the beginning of John Gray’s eerie philosophical cross-examination of the climate crisis, Straw Dogs. “Humans are like any other plague animal,” Gray writes. “They cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them … Disseminated primatemaia [a plague of people] may be cured by a large-scale decline in human numbers.”
In VanderMeer’s Annihilation, it is not the Earth that is doomed to be irreversibly changed. It is people. Or, perhaps more subtly than that: it is people as they currently are. Everything else continues.
It’s not hard to see how a change could be construed as a death – after all, it happens, in a way, in Garland’s Annihilation. Kane, the subtly estranged husband of Lena, is an explorer of the shimmer himself. He, like her, is driven by self-sabotage – just as she tries to destroy their relationship by cheating on him with a colleague, he tries to destroy their relationship by taking a suicidal journey into the shimmer, a doomed trek that prompts Lena’s own later mission.
Kane’s journey ends worse. Reaching the lighthouse, tormented by change, he self-immolates in front of a malleable creature – the shimmer’s true centre – that has copied him; an alien that has draped itself in a version of his skin. Or then again, maybe it is the alien that burns, not the original. After all, it is not clear which Kane sits cross-legged before a wall with a triggered phosphorous grenade in hand, talking to a camera used to record his journey into the shimmer, and which Kane steps into shot after that other Kane has been reassembled into ash. “People called me Kane,” the creature before the camera says before burning up, “and now I’m not so sure. If I wasn’t Kane, what was I? Was I you?”
In either case, our first response is to treat this event in the same way that Lena does, watching the footage back later – which is to say as though we have just borne witness to a suicide. During the burning, Garland’s camera hangs back; then, quickly, he cuts in close to Lena’s face, wracked as it is in shock. It brings to mind a similarly edited moment in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in which a disturbed woman watches a TV news report about a Buddhist monk self-immolating to protest the Vietnam war, sitting in the lotus position as the flames consume him. And it brings to mind grief in its purest form; the grief locked up in all of us; an ache triggered only by death.
Yet Kane hasn’t died – not really. We have not witnessed a suicide. What we have witnessed is an alteration; the most abrupt and irreversible kind of change imaginable. After Lena burns down the shimmer, and returns to the outside world, she is told that Kane – or, at least, a version of Kane – has persisted. And when she goes to greet him, he does react to her, but groggily, as though she is from some time in his life he can only recollect by closing his eyes firmly and thinking of nothing else.
Some philosophers like to use the image of the river to talk about personhood. We are like a river, they say; a fixed body made up of unfixed parts, forever changing and altering, held in place but not really. Garland likes to use a version of that image too. Before he changes, Kane describes his skin as being liquid. Elsewhere, variations on a theme, physicist Josie Radek disseminates into shoots. And still elsewhere, surveyor Cass goes from a woman to a scream locked into the bloodied throat of a bear.
Certainly it’s tempting to say that there are better and worse ways to persist in both VanderMeer and Garland’s worlds. In the film, Josie is horrified by what little comes to remain of Cass; in the novel, the psychologist is shocked by the changes that overcome the biologist. Some alterations seem utterly akin to a kind of death; other alterations even worse than it. “Imagine dying frightened and in pain and having that as the only part of you which survives,” Josie says of Cass’ fate, stroking the plant matter poking through the self-inflicted wounds in her wrist. “I wouldn’t like that at all.”
Before he changes, Kane describes his skin as being liquid.
And yet despite their horror, both works are ultimately and oddly optimistic. In both, as bleak as things get, as much as things alter, something continues. For VanderMeer: the shimmer might mean the end of the human race, just as climate change soon might. And yet life, of a certain kind, persists. And for Garland: humans might drift away from one another – they might cheat and deceive one another, and become so alien as to resemble strangers – but still some part of them remains the same.
It helps to come back to the very last scene of Garland’s Annihilation. The film’s central couple are reunited. Kane is not sure if he is Kane; Lena leaves the question whether she is Lena unanswered. So maybe they really are unknown to one another; maybe every single cell in their body has been forever altered, so much so that there is barely anything that connects them to the people they were who once loved one another. Maybe change of the kind that we most fear has overtaken them. Maybe they have altered in the same way that shifts in the climate have doomed our species; the way change to our bodies means cancer; the way change to our minds means madness. Maybe they are strangers. And yet they look at one another, eyes shimmering. And they embrace.